"politics are personal"....

Anaesthesine

Angel of Distemper
My answer, which I also gave above in response to Peter, is simply that knowledge isn't zero-sum. The point is to be aware of the limits of one's thinking. We don't even need to talk politics to illustrate the point. I'm sure you, like most of us, have done the instructions game at school. It's a very simple experiment. You create instructions for an everyday, humdrum action, like making toast or tying shoelaces. Easy, common sense stuff. Then you give your instructions to the other groups and watch as they follow them step by step as if they'd never done it. In most cases, the instructions will not work, even for the simplest actions. One of the instructions will be slightly off ("Which end goes into the machine, the broken tip of the pencil, or the eraser?") or incomplete ("How can we wash the pots and pans if the kitchen light isn't on?"). It's just a silly game-- nobody takes instructions that literally, as we know-- but the outcome is very interesting. It shows us how much we take for granted with respect to common sense, "common" looking like a misnomer because we don't see things the same as other people. We all know this to be true, but-- and this is the real message of the game-- it's true to a greater extent than we ever imagined. There is always a blind spot in our thinking we never suspected was there.

Which is why I say that "common sense" usually covers up a lot of unexamined premises. All sides are guilty of it, but one side in particular is more guilty than the others, and that's the side of the powerful. By "powerful" I don't just mean the guys with all the money and guns. It applies equally so to the "powerful" in the academy and in the arts, where the Enlightenment's concept of empirical truth is often transformed into a kind of dogma designed to exclude the heretical. Hitchens was an example of this.

To be fair, as anyone who has been to university is painfully aware, the opposite side has won far too many victories over the years. The pendulum has swung from One Truth to Many Truths/Nothing Is True, which is outrageous. Like I said above, "anything goes" is not in any way a rigorous intellectual position. The truth is out there, as "The X-Files" showed us. We just have to pursue it knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are. The worst of the politically correct crowd were nothing more than mirror images of their enemies: "anything is true" is just as deadly as saying "there is only one truth".

That blind spot is a mile wide, and the acknowledgement of said spot is the difference between a strong moral certitude that many people find reassuring and a more "nuanced" view of reality that requires an intellectual diligence that is much more difficult for most people to accept. Authoritarians (whether of the political or religious variety) know that One Truth works in the real world (good riddance, Kim Jong Il). This was the evil from which the enlightenment forces were supposed to deliver us (to be ridiculously reductive). No Truth is a weakness of modernity, and it leads to flaccidity and complete uselessness.

As for Hitch, he was such a fascinating example of how a profoundly insightful, thoughtful, well-educated, disciplined, wide-ranging intellect can still come to some tragically wrong conclusions. Still, he lived and died at full capacity, which is all any of us could wish for.

As for the corruption of the notion of empiricism, that is one of humankind's most profound betrayals.

But that was in the 80s and 90s. Today, I have to question how many of the protesters we see around America and Europe cling to anarchy (whether political, intellectual, or in the street). I often see distinctions between idiots who are nothing more than confused nihilists and outsiders who want to come in from the cold and join the party. Western Civilization got it right, for sure. Many of our governments and other authority structures just aren't living up to our highest standards, and lots of people are calling them on it-- rightly so. And I think the protesters know that what constitutes "political legitimacy" is entirely decided by a handful of elites who want to keep them powerless.

I'm with the Occupiers, all the way. The tragic reality, however, is that the old saw about power corrupting is (almost) universally true; outsiders become elites that then need to be overthrown, and so on ad infinitum. We live in a constant state of flux that manages to move forward and backward at the same time, so that for every battle we win (more egalitarian societies, empowerment of women, acceptance and respect for gender and racial diversity, environmental awareness, etc.) we also lose (fascist/corporatist states, violent religious fundamentalists, multinational exploiters, armed nuclear lunatics). The nihilists do have a compelling case, but it is viciously pointless. Humanity's own betrayal of our most profound capacities is an ongoing tragedy and it is only those glimmers of wise and compassionate action, creative genius, intellectual bravery and common (yes common) decency that offer us any promise of progress. The fact that such glimmers always seem to exist on the periphery is cause for both wonder and dismay.
 

Peterb

Well-Known Member
That blind spot is a mile wide, and the acknowledgement of said spot is the difference between a strong moral certitude that many people find reassuring and a more "nuanced" view of reality that requires an intellectual diligence that is much more difficult for most people to accept. Authoritarians (whether of the political or religious variety) know that One Truth works in the real world (good riddance, Kim Jong Il). This was the evil from which the enlightenment forces were supposed to deliver us (to be ridiculously reductive). No Truth is a weakness of modernity, and it leads to flaccidity and complete uselessness.
Hi Anaesthesine, As always, your post is insightful, saying what I would like to say if I had a brain. The selected quote, for me is a pithy critique of religion. Whilst one may spend their life looking around, questioning, pondering, trying to find some sense in it all, if you find religion then there's your shortcut! It has all the answers and then you can start putting the world to rights. Ofcourse this may be unfair on a lot of believers.
 

Qvist

Active Member
Yeah, I would say so too. By the way, my apologies for being such an arse during our last exchange a few weeks ago.

I probably wasn't a model of niceness either. Let's relegate it to the depths of unmentioned past.
 

Qvist

Active Member
Okay, thanks for clarifying. I don't think your side in this debate is given over to hostility toward "identity politickers" (we need a better term). The point of contention seems to be-- and you repeated it in this post-- whether or not politics can ever escape the personal. You seem to believe in a more or less pure, abstract realm of politics in which different groups of people gather, put aside their smaller, arbitrary claims of self-interest, and mutually hammer out a workable program for the governance of all. My objection is not to the idea itself, which is beyond reproach. My problem is that, in practice, those who claim to be inside this Platonic realm of politics are really no different than the average IP-er (say, the feminist artist in "The Big Lebowksi" who likes to make men uncomfortable by saying the word "vagina" around them). The unquestioned belief in one's objectivity, that one (like Hitchens, RIP) has put aside petty self-interest while other protesters haven't and are therefore illegitimate-- that is the blind spot here, in my view. To borrow your terms, above, the notion that only one side is "us versus them" isn't true. But one of the sides doesn't realize it.

Well, no. That is to reduce the issue to a contention between two opposing extremes. To be fundamentally sceptical towards identity politics is not to deny that there is any role at all for identity in politics, and still less for self-interest. It's not as if politics is either personal, or else completely objective. Clearly, the notion of "pure abstract politics" is absurd.

My point is quite simply that any workable politics must include (as opposed to be completely reduced to) a capacity to transcend self-interest and identity, because otherwise it is not possible to solve any problem by any means other than brute dominance through conflict, which is not an acceptable modus operandi for any political system except briefly and exceptionally. Hence, it also requires some sort of common values, aims or good that the political process can relate to and work towards, and to be conceptualised in terms that makes this possible. Which I consider a good argument against a way of approaching politics that implicitly tends to not acknowledge this.
 

Qvist

Active Member
Ha ha, well, if I understand your question correctly, you are trying to catch me out by using the classic attack against relativists. A variation of: "If all truth is subjective, how do you know all truth is subjective?"

Well, not really - that is a false fallacy, because the claim that all truth is subjective does not remove the meaningfulness of making claims about truth, unless you presuppose the validity of that which the claim denies, namely that any meaningful concept of truth refers to objective truth.

Rather I am pointing out the self-contradiction in arguing that it is impossible to even define what commion sense is, and in simultaneously arguing that people who subscribe to it represent not just a group, but a sectional interest group with presumably clearly defined and shared interests. It is not a question of relativism, but of logical fallacy.


My answer, which I also gave above in response to Peter, is simply that knowledge isn't zero-sum. The point is to be aware of the limits of one's thinking. We don't even need to talk politics to illustrate the point. I'm sure you, like most of us, have done the instructions game at school. It's a very simple experiment. You create instructions for an everyday, humdrum action, like making toast or tying shoelaces. Easy, common sense stuff. Then you give your instructions to the other groups and watch as they follow them step by step as if they'd never done it. In most cases, the instructions will not work, even for the simplest actions. One of the instructions will be slightly off ("Which end goes into the machine, the broken tip of the pencil, or the eraser?") or incomplete ("How can we wash the pots and pans if the kitchen light isn't on?"). It's just a silly game-- nobody takes instructions that literally, as we know-- but the outcome is very interesting. It shows us how much we take for granted with respect to common sense, "common" looking like a misnomer because we don't see things the same as other people. We all know this to be true, but-- and this is the real message of the game-- it's true to a greater extent than we ever imagined. There is always a blind spot in our thinking we never suspected was there.

Of course.

Which is why I say that "common sense" usually covers up a lot of unexamined premises. All sides are guilty of it, but one side in particular is more guilty than the others, and that's the side of the powerful. By "powerful" I don't just mean the guys with all the money and guns. It applies equally so to the "powerful" in the academy and in the arts, where the Enlightenment's concept of empirical truth is often transformed into a kind of dogma designed to exclude the heretical. Hitchens was an example of this.

Surely, this is where discussion enters the picture? You can always bend the facts, but in order to prevail you have to do so persuasively, and according to rules and standards you can't define to fit your own purposes. Empirical truth is a tool whose potential potency is no less for the heretic than for the orthodox. I don't for one second believe the idea that rationality is somehow inherently the tool of of the powerful - much more than that, it is a great leveller. And anyway, what's the alternative? Competing moans of inner authenticity? An appeal to feeling (or more realistically for the majority of people, convenience?)? Doesn't that rather strengthen the hand of unthinking authority? If anything's worth fighting for today it's the authority of rational standards. Without the possibility of an appeal to reason, what is left of opposition?

To be fair, as anyone who has been to university is painfully aware, the opposite side has won far too many victories over the years. The pendulum has swung from One Truth to Many Truths/Nothing Is True, which is outrageous. Like I said above, "anything goes" is not in any way a rigorous intellectual position. The truth is out there, as "The X-Files" showed us. We just have to pursue it knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are. The worst of the politically correct crowd were nothing more than mirror images of their enemies: "anything is true" is just as deadly as saying "there is only one truth".

Okay, so I suppose we're more or less agreed on this point. :)

But that was in the 80s and 90s. Today, I have to question how many of the protesters we see around America and Europe cling to anarchy (whether political, intellectual, or in the street). I often see distinctions between idiots who are nothing more than confused nihilists and outsiders who want to come in from the cold and join the party. Western Civilization got it right, for sure. Many of our governments and other authority structures just aren't living up to our highest standards, and lots of people are calling them on it-- rightly so. And I think the protesters know that what constitutes "political legitimacy" is entirely decided by a handful of elites who want to keep them powerless.

In effect, that's now to some extent up for grabs. That's the potentially interesting thing about such developments. :)
 

Qvist

Active Member
As for Hitch, he was such a fascinating example of how a profoundly insightful, thoughtful, well-educated, disciplined, wide-ranging intellect can still come to some tragically wrong conclusions. Still, he lived and died at full capacity, which is all any of us could wish for.

To me, he illustrates the dangers of an exaggerated preoccupation with intention and first causes, and a corresponding deficiency of focus on practical effects. It's as if sorting the world into a "right" or "wrong" camp was all there was to it. He did the sorting on the basis of certain relevant and respectable moral criteria which he seems to have rather consistently adhered to, rather than just choose his protagonists and antagonists once and for all. In this he was superior to many: Noam Chomsky, for example, does not appear to me to be committed to anything much other than his own positions. But he still lackedsomewhat an eye for practical consequences and broader ramifications. This was perhaps at its clearest with regard to the second Gulf War, which to him appears to have been more or less reducible to the question: Is Saddam's regime bad enough to justify removal by force? He was then subsequently dismayed by the practical outcome as the US occupation grappled rather incompetently with the challenges of stabilising Iraq and building some sort of credible democratic system - but he ought to have taken the clear likelihood of that into consideration in advance. Also, the enormous cost to America's economic, military and political position, the wider effects on the international system of pursuing such military adventures and the clear possibility that the decision makers were not in fact acting on the basis of the same principles he himself emphasised, and so wpould be unlikely to ultimately bring them to fruition.

Which I suppose just goes to show that in politics, it doesn't do to ignore practical consequences.
 
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Anaesthesine

Angel of Distemper
Surely, this is where discussion enters the picture? You can always bend the facts, but in order to prevail you have to do so persuasively, and according to rules and standards you can't define to fit your own purposes. Empirical truth is a tool whose potential potency is no less for the heretic than for the orthodox. I don't for one second believe the idea that rationality is somehow inherently the tool of of the powerful - much more than that, it is a great leveller. And anyway, what's the alternative? Competing moans of inner authenticity? An appeal to feeling (or more realistically for the majority of people, convenience?)? Doesn't that rather strengthen the hand of unthinking authority? If anything's worth fighting for today it's the authority of rational standards. Without the possibility of an appeal to reason, what is left of opposition?

May the current state of American politics be a warning to the rest of the "free world": we have abandoned all reason. There is no hope without reason.

To me, he illustrates the dangers of an exaggerated preoccupation with intention and first causes, and a corresponding deficiency of focus on practical effects. It's as if sorting the world into a "right" or "wrong" camp was all there was to it. He did the sorting on the basis of certain relevant and respectable moral criteria which he seems to have rather consistently adhered to, rather than just choose his protagonists and antagonists once and for all. In this he was superior to many: Noam Chomsky, for example, does not appear to me to be committed to anything much other than his own positions. But he still lackedsomewhat an eye for practical consequences and broader ramifications. This was perhaps at its clearest with regard to the second Gulf War, which to him appears to have been more or less reducible to the question: Is Saddam's regime bad enough to justify removal by force? He was then subsequently dismayed by the practical outcome as the US occupation grappled rather incompetently with the challenges of stabilising Iraq and building some sort of credible democratic system - but he ought to have taken the clear likelihood of that into consideration in advance. Also, the enormous cost to America's economic, military and political position, the wider effects on the international system of pursuing such military adventures and the clear possibility that the decision makers were not in fact acting on the basis of the same principles he himself emphasised, and so wpould be unlikely to ultimately bring them to fruition.

Which I suppose just goes to show that in politics, it doesn't do to ignore practical consequences.

Yes, Hitchens was polemical, but he did his research and backed up his conclusions with informed, thoughtful argument. The current state of American political discourse makes Hitchens look like Socrates. That is why I'm grateful for someone who wore the mantle of public intellectual, even if he was rather rigid in his arguments: the American anti-intellectuals have poisoned the well.

Hitchens' support for the Second Gulf War was gobsmacking to everyone: it defied all reason. It seriously undermined his credibility as a thinker, and was the most egregious error of his career. As you say, Hitchens (and the neocons) broke with reality: whether through shock, awe, greed, expedience, hubris, fear, imperial intent, or some combination thereof, they made a catastrophic blunder. Many Americans knew from the beginning that the war was a debacle (talk about common sense), and fought against it with everything that citizens have in a free society (which turned out to be not all that much). Noam Chomsky may argue from a solidly left-of-center perspective, but he saw the invasion of Iraq for exactly what it was, took a risky political position at a time of national insanity, and was on the right side of history when Hitchens was irretrievably in the wrong. Chomsky spoke compellingly and applied reason; Hitchens abandoned all rationality and went along for the ride.
 
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Happy Maudlin

Corinthian and Caricature
Surely, this is where discussion enters the picture? You can always bend the facts, but in order to prevail you have to do so persuasively, and according to rules and standards you can't define to fit your own purposes. Empirical truth is a tool whose potential potency is no less for the heretic than for the orthodox. I don't for one second believe the idea that rationality is somehow inherently the tool of of the powerful - much more than that, it is a great leveler. And anyway, what's the alternative? Competing moans of inner authenticity? An appeal to feeling (or more realistically for the majority of people, convenience?)? Doesn't that rather strengthen the hand of unthinking authority? If anything's worth fighting for today it's the authority of rational standards.

I agree with so much. If a political debate's based on reason, there wouldn't be need for the personal to be political.

To me, he illustrates the dangers of an exaggerated preoccupation with intention and first causes, and a corresponding deficiency of focus on practical effects. It's as if sorting the world into a "right" or "wrong" camp was all there was to it.

That could have been the residual effects of Marxism. He was, technically still enchanted and influenced by it. He disowned socialism from his intellectual repertoire, but not Marx.
 

Peterb

Well-Known Member
As with many things the answer appears to lie somewhere in the middle. For me, the most successful 'personal politics' occur when it is recognised that it sits within a broader context. I think this is inescapable. How can a single interest group acheive emancipation if another has not? This is rather crudely put. If, say the gay community acheive freedom from victimisation, what sort of victory is that if, for example, the disabled are still suffering predujice.
I feel this is a very clumsy argument but I hope my smarter co-posters will take pity and understand my point.
 

Happy Maudlin

Corinthian and Caricature
If, say the gay community achieve freedom from victimization, what sort of victory is that if, for example, the disabled are still suffering prejudice.

Very well-put. I was working on a response to an earlier post you made, it never got saved. :(
 
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